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Wednesday, April 16, 2003


Paul Foot's column in the Guardian ejects some salvoes at the League of Leftist Warmongers -- presumably Nick Cohen. Foot's thesis is that Democracy only grows from below. This is pretty much our thesis, too. But our second thesis -- that time and circumstance dictate events, not iron laws abstracted from the flow of history - modifies our first one. We don't think that Northern Iraq, in which, after faction and civil discord, a civil society was beginning to peep out, is anamolous.

Foot's claim arises from two questions put to an imaginary LLW opponent:

"As I understand the LLW position, they would, in general, prefer tyrants to be overthrown by the people they oppress. At times, however, they complain the tyranny is so savage, so universally terrifying that it has to be overthrown by superior military force from elsewhere. So the only way to topple Saddam was by US military might. Two points arise. First, in Iran in 1979 the people themselves toppled the tyranny of the Shah - a tyranny every bit as terrifying as that of Saddam Hussein (and imposed and sustained, incidentally, by the US). Second, what guarantee is there that any sustainable democracy will now succeed in Iraq?"

Foot answers his questions by claiming that, 1, it was possible for Saddam to be overthrown the old fashioned way, and that 2., Iraq's hell will be giving way to further hells:

"In the event, all that has been created on the pile of corpses in this war (and most people die in such a war not by being shot or bombed directly, but from loss of limb, blood, disease or plague) is a political vacuum into which plunge a host of contractors, bounty hunters, looters and minorities terrified of another round of persecution. In this chaos, the only beneficiaries are the millionaires and their toadying politicians who caused it in the first place. Our political leaders promise elections, as though poor dismembered Iraq can be compared to East Germany or Czechoslovakia or Indonesia or Serbia after their tyrants were deposed in the 1980s and 1990s. In all those countries, elections followed close on the end of the dictatorships. But in all those countries the tyrants were toppled by movements from below. In Iraq, as in Afghanistan, the tyrants were toppled from above, by stronger military power in other countries. In Afghanistan, they are still waiting for elections and will wait a long time yet, but not as long, I expect, as in Iraq."

Where Foot finds a political vacuum, we find an open moment. We are more comfortable with the term civil society than democracy because democracy has come to mean elections. Elections are fine, but they aren't sufficient to create real liberty. In fact, they can impede real liberty, especially when they are used as excuses to strip a political system of the various subsystems that countervail established power.

Among those subsystems is a sense of humor. One of the things we have liked about the last week is that, even through the fog of war reporting, there seems to be a lot of Iraqi humor directed at the momentous events that dim the lights in every household every night. It seems grotesque to speak of humor when, as Foot puts it, the corpses are heaped everywhere. But how else to explain this article by NYT reporter Ian Fisher:

"The Americans are the ones who have been looting and taking things out of the stores and giving them to families," said Amer Karim, 30, who was himself selling two industrial ceiling fans and a new telephone in a street market in the Kadhimiya section of Baghdad. "So anyone who is selling these things didn't really loot it."

Or the rumor that Saddam Hussein has taken refuge in the USA?

Surely Iraqis who are getting used to being accosted by arrogant newsmen looking for pathos and gratitude have got Fisher's number. And surely that is a sign of the times.

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